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How the Wellcome Trust can play a part in sustaining global health

22 Jul, 2014

The Wellcome Trust is committed to funding research that will lead to improvements in global health. We are increasingly aware of the importance of the connections between environment, nutrition and health and the Trust’s new Sustaining Health initiative aims to build on these. Sarah Molton, from the Sustaining Health team at the Wellcome Trust explains our thinking…

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong.” – Wendell Berry, The Long Legged House (1969).

A colleague at the United States Environmental Protection Agency introduced me to Wendell Berry’s work. His words were relevant in 1969 and remain so today.

Global health is under serious threat. Humanity faces profound questions about how our planet can healthily sustain nine billion people by 2050. Demand for food is rising, fresh water is becoming scarce, climate change is impacting disease spread and those are just a few of the challenges we’re up against.

For the past year, my colleagues Saskia Heijnen and Ted Bianco and I, have been working on a new initiative for the Trust that we call Sustaining Health.

Sustaining HealthWe know that high-quality research in this area requires the development of new interdisciplinary and cross-sector partnerships. Problems like food and water shortage and the health implications of climate change are complicated. They will need people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse thinking to address them.

At the Wellcome Trust, we want to offer funding that will help to bring these people together – combining their intellectual power and experience to develop new ideas for global health.

Our first step has been the funding of five pilot projects to investigate the sustainability of the palm oil industry, health in urban areas, malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, climate-change-resilient diets in India and interventions to improve cardiovascular health in rural China. There is currently a call open for further funding proposals.

In addition, we are already speaking to experts from across sectors and disciplines to see how the Trust might develop its impact in the field of Sustaining Health. Lord John Krebs has kindly agreed to help to shape our developing strategy as a member of a growing advisory panel and we have commissioned a group called Meteos with expertise in health, energy and climate change to run a structured dialogue on Sustaining Health for us.

These are global problems and we will obviously not be able to solve them alone, but happily we are not the only ones trying to tackle them. At a recent (and fascinating) meeting hosted by The Rockefeller Foundation with The Economist and The Lancet, there was much discussion around the idea of “Planetary Health”.

The meeting brought together a pioneering group of scientists, entrepreneurs, public health experts and representatives from business, government and NGOs to explore ways to create a healthier future for the planet and its inhabitants. It was truly a meeting of kindred spirits, a good start, but this movement needs to grow.

We need to take steps together – all of us – and just talking isn’t enough. We need to take action. Public engagement will be fundamental to the success of this mission, and if any of this strikes a chord with you then please get in touch. Engage with us. Tell us your ideas, we’re listening.

Returning to the words of Wendell Berry:

“We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, what is good for the world will be good for us.  And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s work in the area of Sustaining Health and the other funding schemes that we run. 

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